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"The Parthenon Marbles Dispute" - a Review

"The Parthenon Marbles Dispute" by Alexander Herman (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC)

By Eimear Ashe, Collections Moves Project Manager, National Museum of Ireland

Restitution and repatriation are headline topics for those of us in museums and galleries, particularly in recent years when museums have seen requests from, and sometimes returns to, communities around the world. The Benin Bronzes, Native American artefacts and human remains, and the Parthenon Marbles are three of the cases most often discussed in the media. That is why, when I first heard of its upcoming publication, I put in a request for our Librarian to buy The Parthenon Marbles Dispute. I wanted to come to a better understanding of at least one of these thorny issues, and also improve my professional practice in terms of the legalities and ethics around ownership of objects.

Alexander Herman, being Director of the Institute of Art & Law is well known to those who have an interest in the heritage law and cultural property, and he is exceptionally well-informed on this topic. The paperback is at first glance a modest volume, but, don't judge this book by its size. The pages are packed to the brim with Greek history, references to earlier relevant books, legal complexities, heritage ethics, guidance in relation to conflict resolution, and so much more. For those of us without a background in the Classics, archaeology, or European history, the author gives a succinct summary of the importance of the Parthenon and a description of the objects in question – the “Marbles.” He also nicely sets the scene in terms of the political status of Greece at the time of the Marbles’ removal.

Much of the value of this publication is in its measured and balanced discussion on the subject, giving the reader a true sense of the emotions that have caused the dispute to continue for the past 200 years. The author argues that both sides, frustratingly, have reasonable arguments in their favour. Attempts to reconcile the issue, particularly in the late 20th and early 21st century, have so far failed and a stalemate continues. However, the rallying cries for restitution of other collections are sure to put increased pressure on both parties to reach a resolution in this case.

The author dissects theories of dispute resolution and describes how they might be practically applied to the Parthenon Marbles. It does seem however that there are still strong emotions and long-held viewpoints to overcome before a resolution can be found. Interestingly, there appears to be an opinion held by at least one former British Museum curator (Dr Ian Jenkins) as well as a commentator (Henry John Merryman) that restitution is a form of cultural nationalism, which is based on sentiment rather than reason. Dr Jenkins found the Greeks’ calls for Marbles’ return “shrill and self-interested,” according to a conversation with Herman. For those nations who have been plundered by invaders, or where taking of heritage was enabled due to a coloniser’s presence, that opinion will surely rankle.

This book will enable the reader to learn about the Marbles and come to a better understanding of both positions. For me, one of the big benefits of this book, was learning about the protections afforded heritage by law, international conventions, and ethical guidelines. While this book has a slant towards British law, those laws echo in Ireland and have relevance to an Irish audience. For those who are experts in this area, there may be repetition and revision in this volume, but for those (like me) who are new to the subject, I recommend it as a solid introduction to the story of the Marbles and the subject of cultural property.


Further Reading

Institute of Art & Law (2023) The Parthenon Marbles Dispute by Alexander Herman (Art Law Library) [online]. Available from: [accessed 27 February 2024]

The British Museum (2024) The Parthenon Sculptures [online]. Available from: [accessed 27 February 2024]

Digital Benin (2022) Digital Benin [online]. Available from: [accessed 27 February 2024]

Jacobs, J. and Small, Z. (2024) Leading Museums Remove Native Displays Amid New Federal Rules. New York Times [online] Available from: [accessed 27 February 2024]

Ho, K. K. (2024) British Museum Accused of Silencing Critics After Calls to Return Easter Island Statue. Art News. Available from: [accessed 27 February 2024]


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